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Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

SocietyApril 17, 2019

How the far right is trying to turn Notre Dame into the next Reichstag Fire

Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)
Smoke and flames rise during a fire at the landmark Notre-Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo: FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP/Getty Images)

Despite unequivocal statements from French authorities that they believe the Notre Dame fire was accidental, far-right personalities are claiming it was arson. Marc Daalder explains why.

It didn’t take long. Within hours of the news breaking of a devastating fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, far-right leaders were leaping on it, using dog whistles and fabrications to promulgate their theories on white supremacy and the perceived superiority of Western civilisation.

A large subset also hinted or directly asserted that the fire was caused by Muslims – possibly in retribution for the Christchurch shooting.

This contradicts all media reports and the word of the French police. Although French officials told media outlets that the fire was accidental as early as 5:19 am New Zealand time – less than an hour after the catastrophe began and while the blaze was still burning – a wide range of far-right figures were quick to cast doubt.

Stefan Molyneux, the Canadian provocateur whose speaking tour in New Zealand last year was cancelled following protests, started off by “just asking questions” about the safety procedures at the cathedral.

“How on earth did the fire get so big so quickly?”, he wrote on Twitter. “Do they regularly work overtime on the Notre Dame construction project? Didn’t the fire start after the end of the usual workday?” Molyneux tweeted out the EU’s fire safety regulations for construction sites.

After testing the waters, Molyneux issued his public doubts, admitting he had “suspicions that the massive and rapid Notre Dame conflagration could possibly be arson”. He doubled down in future tweets and a YouTube video, arguing, “What makes any rational person think we will get the truth? Governments lie constantly.”

Also on Twitter, prominent “alt-right” troll Jack Posobiec – who at one time championed the Pizzagate and Seth Rich conspiracy theories – discussed his own doubts. He tweeted and later deleted, “I notice [US Congresswoman Ilhan Omar] is awfully quiet today,” as if the Muslim congresswoman had personally set the fire.

He later joined a number of right-wing commentators condemning Fox News host Shepard Smith. Smith was interviewing former French politician and convicted libeller Philippe Karsenty when the latter suggested the fire was intentional. “Of course, you will hear the story of the political correctness which will tell you it’s probably an accident,” Karsenty said.

Smith was quick to shut down Karsenty, refuting his baseless allegations and then kicking him off the show. Posobiec and others denounced Smith for this.

White supremacist Richard Spencer was to publicly doubt the official record. Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” and leapt to notoriety for shouting “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail victory” in front of an audience performing a Hitler salute, continues to tweet his thoughts to the world untrammelled on Twitter. He posted n Tuesday: “If the Nortre [sic] Dame fire serves to spur the White man into action – to sieze [sic] power in his countries, in Europe, in the world – then it will have served a glorious purpose and we will one day bless this catastrophe.”

People kneel on the pavement as they pray outside watching flames engulf Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. (Photo: ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images)

All these tactics serve a single purpose: promulgating far-right ideology and recruiting new adherents. The far-right wants to identify Notre Dame as a pinnacle achievement of “Western civilisation” – a dog whistle term for white civilisation. In many cases, this is blatant. In his YouTube video, Molyneux described Notre Dame as a Western achievement, then went on to argue that white men were responsible for “way more than 90 percent of scientific innovations from 800 BC to 1950 AD,” a reference to a debunked statistic from race scientist Charles Murray.

By synonymising Notre Dame and Western civilisation, the far-right wants to convince those who understand their underlying meaning that white culture is in danger, also known as the white genocide conspiracy theory.

This theory posits that white people are at risk of being replaced by increased diversity in majority white countries and increased tolerance of racial and cultural differences. Notre Dame has become, literally overnight, an icon of white genocide – a Reichstag Fire for a generation of white supremacists desperate to believe they are the victims. (The 1933 Reichstag Fire, in case you’re fuzzy on your history, was an arson attack that the Nazi regime blamed on communists, using it as an excuse to seize almost unlimited political power.) The far-right has juxtaposed images of the burning cathedral with lines of non-white refugees at the Hungarian border, as if there was any connection between the two.

But this messaging won’t just reach those who are in the know regarding the far-right meaning of the phrase ‘Western civilisation’. Even the seemingly harmless notion that Notre Dame is a preeminent symbol of Western civilisation can carry the implication that the ‘West’ is under threat. In many cases, this idea is the first step on a slippery slope towards online radicalisation – and in some cases, far-right terrorism.

By introducing an element of doubt about the cause of the fire, the far right can also start pointing fingers at specific groups they blame for the decline of white civilisation. In this case, the target is Muslims. Almost immediately, far-right leaders and trolls began pushing fabricated footage purporting to show Muslims celebrating the blaze. At least two popular right-wing posts were confirmed by Buzzfeed News to contain doctored video.

Molyneux, among others, brought up the possibility that Muslims were responsible, before dismissing his own suggestion as idle speculation. American commentator and conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck said on his show on the right-wing platform The Blaze that “If this was started by Islamists, I don’t think you’ll find out about it.”

Faith Goldy, a Canadian provocateur who was fired from the far-right Rebel Media after doing an interview for the further-right Daily Stormer, shared an article on Twitter about the sentencing of a woman involved in a failed 2016 plot to attack Notre Dame.

“Three days ago a Muslim jihadis in Paris was arrested for planning a terrorist attack at Notre Dame Cathedral,” she wrote, ignoring the fact that the woman was arrested nearly two and a half years ago. “Today, Notre Dame is in flames. Probably just a coincidence.”

A select few have gone even further and directly connected the accident in Paris to the Christchurch terror attack. Noting that the fire began on April 15 Paris time and the shootings occurred on March 15 New Zealand time, low-profile conspiracy theorists have argued that the fire was retribution.

Deeper down the rabbit hole, some on the far-right Twitter-style platform Gab argued that the Christchurch attack was a hoax, and that the fire was either started by the same people who organised Christchurch, or that the Muslims who they assume to have started the fire were tricked by the false flag.

Of course, none of these claims have basis in fact. It may seem to most to be very obviously nonsense, but the month since Christchurch has shown us that plenty of people will believe what a majority consider absurd.

Understanding why some fall for the bunk science and pseudo-philosophy underpinning far-right ideology and how they use it to recruit more people to their cause is a crucial part of countering their worst manifestations. And Notre Dame serves as a perfect case study: a tragic accident that has been immediately weaponised to propagate a far-right belief system to an unsuspecting public.

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